“[School] was a nightmare full of loud sounds, bright colors, and noisy children. The adoration I received for being ‘so smart’ faded with each grade. I could not understand what was happening. Instead of praise, I was constantly getting reprimanded. Nothing made sense. Even [the school principal] no longer meant what he said. He said I could come and see him whenever I wanted, but he lied. When I rose from my seat, walked out of my classroom, and went down the stairs to the main office to see him, I was in trouble. ‘Young lady, you cannot just walk out of [the teacher’s] class and come down here.’ Tears welled up in my eyes as I tried to make sense of it.”
Many autistic students move their bodies in ways other students do not (or at least not as regularly). They may flap their hands, bounce up and down in their seats, twirl in the aisles, hide under their desks, get up and wander around the classroom, or try to leave the room or even the school. (They may also behave in more disturbing ways. Meltdowns, self-injury, and aggression towards others will be the subject of another post–for now, I want to focus on the actions just described: flapping, bouncing, rocking, and various “out-of-seat behaviors” like hiding, wandering, and running away.)
Schools often view these “movement behaviors,” even more than vocalizations, as barriers to the inclusion of autistic students in mainstream classrooms. Movement behaviors make many teachers uncomfortable because they break the visual pattern of an orderly classroom and appear to undermine discipline. Some administrators and teachers also attribute disturbing motivations to students who behave in these ways. They may view certain types of movement as evidence of defiance or disrespect, as acts of wilful disruption. They fail to realize that autistic students who flap and rock and hide are not generally trying to be disruptive (with a few exceptions, to be described below).
In the first place, because autistic students often do not pick up on social cues from their fellow students, they may simply not understand why they can’t just move their bodies the way they want in school. If they bounce or twirl at home, they assume that they can also bounce or twirl at school. They may view demands that they stop as nonsensical, or–especially when their movements are related to sensory issues—they may simply be unable to stop. As researchers and teachers are slowly coming to realize, movement is often a necessity for autistic children. Rocking may alleviate dizziness, making a student feel less likely to fall out of his or her seat. Bouncing may help a child locate his or her body in space, diminishing the terrifying feeling of being “disembodied.” If a fire alarm suddenly goes off, the only choice for some children will be to run away from an intolerably painful noise. Many students with autism use movement to distract or protect themselves from sensory overload, or–on the other hand–to gain the sensory stimulation they need to remain focused on their schoolwork.
If some teachers are beginning to understand the connection between movement behaviors and sensory needs, far fewer understand how other factors are involved. They may not realize that some autistic students move around because of their very eagerness to learn. A child with auditory or visual differences may rove through the classroom trying to find a spot where he or she can access the information the teacher is presenting. A child keenly interested in nature or in the trucks rolling down the street outside the school may run to the windows or even outside the school to pursue those interests. Students bored with their own “toned-down” curriculum may wander around the classroom to catch a glimpse of what other students are doing.
Emotional as well as intellectual issues may play a role. Jeanne Davide-Rivera, the author of the passage cited above, left her classroom to visit the nice principal she had met her first day of school—the one who had actually told her she could visit him any time she wanted! She found it intensely confusing when she was told that her behavior was wrong. In her case, movement was a response to the desire for human connection—a desire autistic students are often assumed not to have. Movement is even more often a response to anxiety associated with heavy academic or social unease. In some children, anxiety leads to increased rocking, bouncing, or hiding. Emotional distress caused by real or perceived academic “failures,” or by cruelty on the part of teachers and classmates often results in “elopement” or bolting out of a classroom or school.
It remains the case, however, that most movement behaviors are either well-intentioned (that is, the student is actually trying very hard to be “good”) or unavoidable (he or she simply needs to move). Only rarely is autistic “acting up” intended disrupt the class—and even then, this is not always for the reasons teachers or administrators imagine. To give one unexpected example: children overwhelmed by the visual and auditory stimuli in their classrooms may discover that they can hear and understand their lessons better from a desk in the hallway, which they then learn they can acquire for themselves through some planned infraction of the rules about movement. For these children, engaging in “undesirable” movement behaviors becomes the key to learning.
More commonly, however, deliberate misbehavior is a planned reaction to intolerable stress. It is an undeniable fact that autistic students seldom enjoy school. Much more often they experience school as “a nightmare” or as “hell.” Few administrators or teachers understand how painful school is for these students. Day after day they must endure constant bombardment by sensory stimuli, the terror of (often unsuccessful) social interactions, and—most serious of all—the attentions of sadistic bullies. (More on bullying in another post.) After they have suffered for months or even years, some of these students consciously decide to behave in ways they know are wrong, in the hopes of being suspended and allowed to stay home. The Wrong Planet website (an online forum for those with autism) has had several discussion threads about school suspension, and a common theme is seeking out suspension as a way to avoid bullies. What is most striking about these posts, however, is how often the authors used this approach only as a last, desperate resort.
So when teachers or school administrators are faced with autistic students who bounce, rock, twirl, and elope, they would do well to consider all the other possible reasons for these movement behaviors, before assuming that their students are simply being disrespectful.
 Jeanne Davide-Rivera, Twirling Naked in the Streets and No One Noticed: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Autism ([Location Unclear]: David and Goliath Publishing, 2013), p. 34.
 Sadly, there remain so-called “experts” who assume that these children are deliberately misbehaving: e.g., Deborah Napolitano and David McAdam, “Problem Behavior,” in Tristram Smith, ed., Making Inclusion Work for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders: An Evidence-Based Guide (New York: Guilford Press, 2012), p. 304: “Throughout the day, students continually have a choice [emphasis added] of whether to display the problem behavior . . .”
 Consider the case of Laura, described by Paula Kluth, You’re Going to Love This Kid: Teaching Students with Autism in the Inclusive Classroom, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing, 2010), p. 202.
 See the post by WAautistic guy on a thread about “What Are Your Worst Experiences at School” on Wrong Planet: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=166310&start=30.
 Davide-Rivera, Twirling Naked in the Streets, p. 36.
 See the thread entitled “Public Education is HELL for Aspie Children: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?p=1100890; skimming through the “School” forum as a whole makes clear why school is so often found intolerable by those with autism.
 E.g., the following:“Anyone Ever Threatened with Suspension?” (http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=148672) and “Is Suspension Really a Punishment?”(http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=194004)